Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Journal of Jessie Past

My good friend Christine and I were talking about how we never would have met if we hadn’t decided to study abroad in Moscow ever so many years ago.  Her decision wasn’t that strange – Christine’s mom is from St. Petersburg and she grew up speaking Russian at home – but my case is a little different.  Since Tiger Mom dropped the ball in the foreign language department, I grew up speaking English and only English (and this one Tagalog curse word that Spaniards told me is only employed by grandmothers). “So,” Christine wondered, “how did you choose Russia?” 

Over the years, even I have forgotten what first led me to Russia, so I decided to investigate The Journal of Jessie Past.  As always, it was a wealth of weird information:
Anyway, so [Melissa’s friend] asks me why I’m going to Russia, and since it was Melissa’s birthday party and we were at a bar and I was a little buzzed, I gave her a more honest answer than I give most people. Obviously this isn’t verbatim since my memory is so crappy, but the gist was, “All right, well to be honest I haven’t explained it like this to many people, I put it like this to Melissa for the first time today. When I was younger, I always wanted to run away from home, when I was older I often wondered what it would be like to uproot myself and move to a city in the middle of nowhere and start a new life without telling people where I’d gone. Well Russia is as close as I probably will ever come to doing this. I’m going to a completely foreign place, I’m going by myself, and I’m going to fulfill my dream of throwing myself into a new situation that is unfamiliar, lonely, and scary.”
There are so many questions I want to ask myself: Dude, do you not know how to use commas?  I know this is your journal, but get it together.  Also, where did you get a fake ID?!  Because I know I did not have one.  And finally, what kind of misanthrope were you?  Most people’s idea of a good time does not include the adjectives “lonely and scary.”

So there we have it: I came to Russia in search of fear and loneliness.  Now I’m off to destroy all my old journals before I discover something truly terrifying.  God knows what my else I’ve blocked out about my 20-year-old self...

My former selves (September 2005 and March 2014) making wishes at Km 0 in Moscow

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Nabokov Complex

On Saturday, I ended up at the Rozhdestveno Memorial Estate, the country house of famed writer Vladimir Nabokov. If you haven’t heard of his masterpiece, Lolita, then you should probably familiarize yourself with a library and stop reading inane internet posts like this. If you have heard of Lolita but haven’t read it, then you should read it posthaste and not hold me responsible if you discover that a pedophilic love story is not your cup of tea. Now that we’ve got those disclaimers out of the way, let’s continue with the story of how I got roped into translating a Russian tour of Nabokov’s former dacha for a dozen Americans.

I’d long for Russia too if I had a summer house like this to visit

I first realized how difficult it is to translate when I tried to do it for two friends who were visiting me in Spain last spring. On a tour of a honey farm, I only managed to share a few Spanglish factoids and one racist joke—and I’m actually pretty fluent in Spanish. But when you throw in an audience and my fairly laughable command of Russian, my translations become even more atrocious:

Guide: And on top of the house you’ll notice a rectangular belvedere…
Me: So that thing on the top is a “belvedere.” Anyone have any idea what that’s called in English?
Tourist: A belvedere. That’s a word in English too.
Tourist #2: I just thought it was a brand of vodka.
Me: Same.

Guide: The estate was built in the 18th century…
Me: The estate was built in the восемнадцатого века. God, I’m so bad at numbers. Um…
Guide [in English]: Eighteenth century.
Me: Are you sure you don’t want to just do this in English? No? Okay.

Guide: He inherited the estate from his uncle, who never married.
Me: Nabokov inherited this place from his uncle, who never married.
Guide #2: He didn’t just “not marry,” he liked boys.
Me: So they’re telling me the uncle batted for the other team.

Guide: Here is the ballroom where they danced.
Me: In this ballroom, danced. [long pause] I need a subject with that verb, don’t I? This is where they danced.

Guide: And at parties and balls, the orchestra and musicians played in the balcony you see above us.
Me: The muzikants and the orchestra played up there.
Tourist: You mean “musicians.”
Me: Do I have to translate everything for you?

In the end, I understood most of the tour, even if I didn’t always render it into the most eloquent of English. The guide even complimented my Russian, which I probably shouldn’t be too flattered by since she mostly just heard me speaking broken English. Not surprisingly, my abilities in my native language didn’t garner any praise, but I think the group assumed I was embellishing with my more elevated turns of phrase like “Nabokov was a lepidopterist” and “he wanted to preserve the sanctity of the Russian language.” Which I mostly was.

I guess I figured I hadn’t shamed myself enough because I was even convinced to play a tune on Nabokov’s piano.  Normally I wouldn't be bold enough to bust out the few bars of Für Elise buried in the recesses of my memory, but my love for Nabokov runs deep, and I knew that my mother would clap her hands in glee when she saw this photograph.  See, Mom, those twelve years of piano lessons weren’t in vain.